Wednesday, May 25, 2011


It’s been a fast few days of activity and difficult days for blogging. Earlier this week I attended the International Conference on Social Work and Community Development—an incredible experience, which I’ll blog about soon. But before then I want to share a little something from my past weekend.

Saturday the CTBU social work faculty took Widener faculty out for a day in the countryside: to Rongchang County. I’ve never been to Rongchang before, but it holds a place in my mental map because I’ve encountered it in the archives and know at least one children’s home existed there during the war with Japan. One of the CTBU social work students—Tianna— is from Rongchang, and she had spent a semester at Widener and had even eaten my husband’s sour cream waffles one Saturday morning in early autumn and attended our borough’s annual rummage sale. Tianna’s parents are both well-connected county government officials, and they were very happy to host us.

We rode in a bus, about 2 hours from CTBU and urban Chongqing, stopping briefly to eat a Chinese breakfast once we entered Rongchang: pugaimian 铺盖面, a delicious handmade local noodle served in a rich broth. I like to eat noodles the Chongqing way, with a bit of hot sauce added. Yum.

We then proceeded to make 3 stops at 3 different places of worship: Two Catholic abbeys, founded by French missionaries in 1905; and one Buddhist Temple founded during the Song dynasty.

I love entering places of worship and sacred places of all kinds, but especially when I am in China. Over the years, I’ve visited many temples and holy sites in China: Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, shrines to city gods and to local deities. Regardless of the faith or denomination, I feel a calm receptiveness within me when I enter these spaces. There is something profoundly reassuring to me that humans create places of prayer and worship, and I enter these spaces with gratitude and reverence. There is often something of myself restored at these altars, and often something of myself I leave behind as I exit.

But this weekend’s visits were particularly special to me: two Catholic abbeys, with altars where I am most truly at home. We were guided up the long staircase to the first abbey by a friend of Tianna’s father, a Catholic with the surname Xu who wears a rosary around his neck, like a necklace. He nodded, warmly, when I showed him the rosary I carry in my iPod case, a gift from brother, from Lourdes. This first abbey we visited is called Zhen Yuan Tang 真原堂 and is the church where Mr. Xu worships. It’s a large parish, as there are 4,000 Catholics in a township with a population of about 40,000. I was surprised by this number, as well as by the pictures of Pope Benedict overlooking us from all sides: two on either side of the altar, and one in the back of the church.

The church has many Chinese characteristics to it, including decorative strings of light considered festive and celebratory at Chinese banquets and restaurants, but which I found loud in this setting (perhaps because of my associations with Chinese banquets and restaurants?). But I soon overcame my resistance to these lights when I recognized them for what they are: a warm Chinese welcome to a banquet of another kind.

We had very little time there, but I took in what I could: the long wooden pews where I know so many before me, in the midst of life’s struggles, have found themselves on their knees; the statue of Mary, her palms folded in prayer and her face open to God’s will; and the statue of Christ pointing to his wounded heart, still open to the world in healing and in mercy. Most newly-built Catholic churches in the U.S. are beautiful spaces of high ceilings bright with natural light, but there is something I love about older churches and their shadowy recesses. It always feels miraculous to me when the daylight finds a way through. I walked slowly around the church, pulling from our group where I could, sitting or kneeling where and when it felt right, traversing those boundaries between shadow and light, finding my way into worship.

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